Biopics are always an iffy prospect, especially if you're seeing the film because you're a fan of the person being depicted. As a martial arts enthusiast I'm willing to sit through virtually any historical reenactment flick because some of them have been downright excellent — THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN (1978, aka MASTER KILLER) being a perfect case in point — and in my quest to see as many Sonny Chiba movies as possible I came across THE POWER OF AIKIDO, purportedly the story of Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), the founder of aikido. A movie about Ueshiba, starring my man Sonny and directed by Shigehiro Ozawa, the genius responsible for THE STREET FIGHTER? How the fuck could I pass that up?
Well, despite the cover image that places Sonny Chiba front and center, thereby implying that he's the star, THE POWER OF AIKIDO is actually a vehicle for Sonny's younger brother, Jiro, who's probably best known to us chopsocky goons as the poor bastard who takes a thirty-story nosedive and splatters all over the sidewalk early in THE STREET FIGHTER (1974). Jiro's not a bad actor or martial artist, but if you're looking for that signature Sonny Chiba mojo you're pretty much shit out of luck with this one as Sonny's a secondary character who only shows up to liven things up when the going gets slow and show the rest of the cast how to properly kick the motherfucking shit of people.
The story starts somewhere around 1912, when Ueshiba is the leader of a farming village who spends virtually no time farming and instead seeks to create an unbeatable martial art style. Training in some oddball style of jujitsu with — or more accurately, on — his fellow villagers, Ueshiba routs a bunch of thugs who want to force a young boy into a "massage gang" — exactly what that means isn't explained, but I think I have a pretty good idea thanks to how vehemently the kid doesn't want to go with them — at which point Sonny Chiba walks in, announces his style of karate, and then beats the unholy shit out of Ueshiba in what gets my vote as the highlight of the movie; unlike the moves that so perfectly suited his Terry Tsurugi character in THE STREET FIGHTER, Chiba is allowed to cut loose here with a grace and speed that frankly surprised me, and I've seen a LOT of his films. Once he's done putting his foot up Ueshiba's ass, Chiba leaves, taking the thugs with him and allowing the villagers to take care of the kid.
Mortified at being on the receiving end of such a righteous ass-whuppin', Ueshiba drops farming entirely and begins a quest to try his skills against any other fighters who'll give him the time of day, first challenging a surly, drunken samurai to a contest of sword against fists. Luckily for Ueshiba, the badassed swordsman is kind enough to take him on using a piece of wood rather than a piece of three-foot razor-sharp steel, but Ueshiba nonetheless once more has his ass handed to him. At that point I was ready to settle in for what looked to be an entire film of one man's journey to spiritual and martial epiphany by getting the shit beaten out of him every few minutes, yet as the film went on and Ueshiba's skills improved, the end result didn't look that much like aikido to me, with Ueshiba punching and kicking in full-on Bruce Lee mode; that's probably because aikido is a a discipline that redirects or traps the aggressor without the punches or kicks found in other martial systems. Ueshiba wasn't about killing, stating that "To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace," and while that's all well and good it might not go down too well with the bloodthirsty audience that expects to see feet penetrating people's skulls, eyeballs getting gouged out, and limbs getting unceremoniously separated from their source bodies with as much spewing plasma as possible.
In between the set-to's, the drunken samurai cuts a guy's arm off and is sent to prison, Sonny falls in love with a terminally ill woman and becomes a good guy, and Chiba movie regular Etsuko Shihomi — the gorgeous badass of the SISTER STREET FIGHTER series — even shows up with no explanation whatsoever, kicks a wee smidgen of ass and somehow makes it onto the cover image despite being onscreen for about three minutes. None of this does anything for the film other than drag it out and after Ueshiba defeats the now-released drunken swordsman (who incidentally also shot Sonny Chiba's character while he and Ueshiba tested each other's skills in a friendly match), the film ends abruptly as the narrator declares something to to the effect of, "And that is how aikido was born!" I dunno, there's a lot of shit in this flick that's straight out of damned near every other Japanese chopsocky movie ever made, and some of it comes off as bearing so little relation to Ueshiba's real story that the whole thing could have just as easily been entitled I WAS AN AIKIDO FIGHTER ON THE MOON.
Bottom line: this one's worth it only for the bit where Sonny kicks his younger brother's ass, and that happens during the first fifteen minutes. Of interest solely for Sonny Chiba completists, and speaking as one of that group I don't even think many of us Chiba boosters would give this a second look. Save your money for the far superior SONNY CHIBA'S DRAGON PRINCESS (1978) now that it's available in a — finally!!! — decent widescreen print as part of the WELCOME TO THE GRINDHOUSE double feature series.
It's Etsuko Shihomi's second best film after SISTER STREET FIGHTER and is a martial arts tragedy of how a father ruins his daughter's life by training her to be his agent of vengeance, and it's paired with yet another Chiba skull-cracker, the merely so-so KARATE WARRIORS (1976).
TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!